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Notable African Americans who helped pave the way
Person list created by Dj Levels
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On Jan. 20, 2021, former California attorney general and senator Kamala Harris became not only America's first female vice president but the country's first Black and first South Asian woman vice president when she took the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In 2020, the Democrat from California -- who is serving her country alongside President Joe Biden -- also became the first woman of color on a U.S. presidential ticket for a major party -- ever.
Singer-songwriter and actor Harry Belafonte was the first Black man to win an Emmy Award. He took home the accolade in 1960 for his television special "Tonight With Belafonte." This wasn't his first historic win, however: In 1954, he became the first Black man to win a Tony Award. He earned the honor for his work in the Broadway production of "John Murray Anderson's Almanac."
Sixteen years later, John Legend followed in Whoopi Goldberg's footsteps. He became the very first Black man and the second Black person to reach EGOT status. The soulful singer won his first Grammy in 2006 for his album "Get Lifted." He then took home the best original song Oscar in 2015 for "Glory." He won a best revival of a play Tony in 2017 for producing "Jitney." John sealed the deal in 2018 when he won an Emmy for producing NBC's "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert."
Cardi B made history at the 2019 Grammy Awards when she won the best rap album prize for her debut album, "Invasion of Privacy." Lauryn Hill was the first and until now only woman to claim the award (she won the prize in 1997 as part of hip-hop group the Fugees), but Cardi is the first solo female artist to take home the honor since the Recording Academy started handing it out in 1996.
Singer-actress Diahann Carroll broke one of the biggest barriers in entertainment when she become the first Black woman to star on a network television series -- NBC's "Julia" -- in 1968. In 1962, she also became the first African American woman to win a Tony Award.
In 1993, author Toni Morrison became the first African American and eighth woman to win the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature.
On Jan. 12, 2021, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association named Jackson and Satchel Lee -- filmmaker Spike Lee's children with producer Tonya Lewis Lee -- as its 2021 Golden Globe Ambassadors (an honor previously known as Miss or Mr. Golden Globe). Not only are they the first Black siblings named to the position, but Jackson is the first Black male ambassador in Golden Globes history.
Vanessa Williams made history in 1983 when she was crowned Miss America -- the first Black woman to ever win the pageant. Sadly, her reign was cut short when photos of Vanessa not wearing any clothes surfaced, causing a storm of controversy. She was forced to resign in 1984 and runner-up Suzette Charles, who was also a Black woman, took over the title. Miss America CEO Sam Haskell offered Vanessa a public apology in 2016, 32 years later.
In 2019, JAY-Z became the first billionaire in hip hop, Forbes reported. Aside from his rap career -- his catalog is worth an estimated $75 million -- he makes his money from multiple successful business ventures. His assets include the Armand de Brignac champagne and D'Ussé cognac brands, which are worth $410 million; a $100 million stake in his Tidal music streaming service; a reported $70 million stake in Uber; and more huge investments (like a $50 million art collection!).
Gail Fisher, who's best recognized for her role as secretary Peggy Fair on the television series "Mannix," made history with the awards she earned. For her performance on the detective series, on which she appeared from 1968 to 1975, she took home an Emmy in 1971 for outstanding performance by an actress in a dramatic supporting role -- making her the first African American woman to ever win the honor. One year later, she became the first African American woman to win a Golden Globe (then scored her second Globe two years later).
Didn't every teen boy have that iconic poster of Tyra Banks in a bikini on his wall?! As the first Black woman to grace the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, which she did in 1996 and again in 1997, Tyra set a new precedent for Black models. "Black women have always been these vixens, these animalistic erotic women," she's said. "Why can't we just be the sexy American girl next door?"
Viola Davis made history during the 2015 Emmy Awards when she became the first Black woman to win the prize for outstanding lead actress in a drama series. She took home the Emmy for her performance on "How to Get Away with Murder."
Tamron Hall made history on the "Today" show when, in 2014, she became the first African American woman to serve as a co-anchor in the show's 65-year history. She's since left the network where she worked for a decade, declining to renew her contract in late January 2017 in the wake of the news that she and Al Roker would no longer be hosting the third hour of "Today" after former FOX News star Megyn Kelly (briefly) joined the network.
Lupita Nyong'o makes this list because in 2014, she became the first Black woman to be named as a brand ambassador for Lancôme.
Beyhive, rejoice! Beyonce is the most nominated female artist in Grammys history thanks to a whopping 79 nods as of 2021. Her nominations (which have delivered 24 wins so far) have come as both a solo artist, as a member of Destiny's Child and as half of The Carters.
Who hasn't blasted "Old Town Road"?! In the summer of 2019, Lil Nas X's remixed country-rap track, which also features hitmaker Billy Ray Cyrus, set a new record when it became the longest running No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, topping the chart for an incredible 19 consecutive weeks. Further, the Grammy winner's hit achieved Diamond status in October 2019 (which means it moved 10 million certified units), hitting the sales milestone faster than any other song.
Aside from being an iconic Broadway actress, Audra McDonald is also a history maker! She's won six Tony Awards -- more acting performance Tonys than anyone else. On top of that, the "Carousel" and "Ragtime" star is the first person who's won Tonys in all four acting categories.
Regina King made her directorial debut with the 2020 film "One Night in Miami," a fictionalized film about a real-life encounter between Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown in a Miami hotel room. The movie was the first film directed by an African American woman to ever be selected for the Venice Film Festival. "Unfortunately, across the world, that's how things seem to work," Regina told Variety of the lack of representation for female directors of color. "One woman gets a shot and if she does not succeed, it shuts things down for years until someone else gets a shot."
Donald Glover made history during the 2017 Emmys when he became the first Black person to win the award for outstanding directing for a comedy series for his work on "Atlanta." The same night, he also took home the Emmy for best lead actor on a comedy series for his performance on the FX dramedy.
Donald Glover made history in February 2019 when, as his music alter-ego Childish Gambino, he became the first hip-hop artist ever to win the song of the year prize and the record of the year award at the Grammys, for his critically acclaimed song "This Is America." It's significant and groundbreaking as it marks the first time a hip-hop song has received either honor.
In 2016, Ava DuVernay became the first Black female director to helm a film with a budget of more than $100M when she was selected by Disney to direct an adaptation of "A Wrinkle in Time." It wasn't the first time she made history wither: In 2012, Ava became the first Black woman to win the best director award during the Sundance Film Festival (for her film "Middle of Nowhere"). On top of all that, in 2017, Ava became the first Black woman to receive an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature. That nod was for "13th," which she wrote, directed and produced.
Child actress Quvenzhané Wallis goes down in history as the Oscars' youngest ever best actress nominee. She was 9 when she received the nod for her performance in "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Former NFL coach Tony Dungy made history during Super Bowl XLI in 2007 when he led the Indianapolis Colts to a championship and became the first African American head coach to win a ring.
In 2018, music star Kendrick Lamar became the first rapper to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for music. He did it with his 2017 album "DAMN.," becoming the first music winner in the 100-year history of the Pulitzers who did not come from the classical or jazz worlds. The prize board praised his album as "a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African American life."
Attorney Rachel Lindsay made history in 2017 when she was cast as the lead on ABC's hit reality show "The Bachelorette." The move made her the first Black star to topline the hit reality franchise. Three years later, ABC cast its first Black leading man on the show's counterpart…
Acclaimed Broadway star Phylicia Rashad made history when she won the Tony Award for best actress in a leading role in a play in 2004 for her performance in "A Raisin in the Sun." She was the first Black woman to ever take home the coveted award.
Drake is a definite history maker. When the Canadian actor-turned-rapper won 12 trophies at the 2019 Billboard Music Awards -- including top artist and top Billboard 200 album for "Scorpion" (each for the second time in three years) -- he set a new record for most BBMA wins ever. With his new total of 27 BBMAs, Champagne Papi surpassed reigning champ Taylor Swift, who has 23 career Billboard Music Awards.
Shonda Rhimes has made television history not once but twice (more on that next). The writer-producer became the highest paid showrunner in Hollywood when she signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix in 2018, she confirmed while speaking at ELLE's 25th Annual Women in Hollywood celebration that October. Though she didn't disclose how much she was earning, she did share that the figure that had been reported -- a $100 million salary -- was incorrect. Considering peer Ryan Murphy signed a $300 million deal with Netflix, and Greg Berlanti signed a $400 million overall deal extension with Warner Bros. Television, we know it's got to be more than that! "When Ryan made his amazing deal with Netflix, what did he do? He shouted his salary to the world...," Shonda said. "When I made a deal with Netflix, I let them report my salary wrong in the press, and then I did as few interviews as possible and I put my head down and worked..." She then announced, earning herself a standing ovation, "I am the highest paid showrunner in television."
And she makes the list again: Few TV writers and producers have the kind of name recognition that Shonda Rhimes can boast. The "TGIT" showrunner -- famous for "Scandal," "Grey's Anatomy," "How To Get Away With Murder" and more -- made history when she became the first Black woman to create and executive produce three television shows among TV's top 10.
In 2015, pop-R&B singer The Weeknd became the first artist in history to claim the top three spots on Billboard's Hot R&B Songs chart with "Earned It" at No. 3, "The Hills" at No. 2 and "Can't Feel My Face" at No. 1. Talk about a Starboy!
Ella Fitzgerald became the first Black female Grammy winner in 1958 when she won the awards for best jazz performance and best female pop vocal performance for her work on the album "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook."
Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win an Academy Award for best actor when he took home the prize for his performance in "Lilies of the Field" in 1964.
In January 1997 at 18, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant became the youngest player to ever start in an NBA game. (He was also the youngest to start in an All-Star game.) Kobe scored the most points in a single NBA game in the modern era -- a record he set in January 2006 when he finished with a whopping 81 points against the Toronto Raptors. During his career, Mamba scored 33,643 points and sunk 8,378 free throws -- more than any other guard in NBA history. But he's also made Hollywood history: In 2018, Kobe -- who tragically died in a January 2020 helicopter accident along with eight others including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna -- took home an Academy Award for best animated short for "Dear Basketball," making him the only professional athlete to ever win a basketball championship and an Oscar.
In response to feeling ignored in Hollywood, Tyler Perry decided to take matters into his own hands -- by creating his own film studio, Tyler Perry Studios, which opened in Atlanta in 2019. In addition to establishing himself as the first African American to have outright ownership of a major film studio, Tyler Perry Studios is also the biggest production studio in America.
Jordan Peele became the first Black screenwriter to win the Academy Award for best original screenplay when he took home the Oscar for his "Get Out" script during the 90th Annual Academy Awards on March 4, 2018. (Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney won in the best adapted screenplay category in 2017 for "Moonlight," while John Ridley won in 2014 for adapting "12 Years a Slave"; Geoffrey Fletcher became the first Black writer to win an Oscar for writing -- period -- when he took home the best adapted screenplay Oscar for "Precious" in 2010.)
Actress Kerry Washington became the first African American woman to headline a network TV drama since 1974 (Teresa Graves paved the way when she starred as an undercover cop on "Get Christie Love!" in 1974-1975) when Shonda Rhimes' "Scandal" premiered on ABC in 2012. Kerry played fixer Olivia Pope on the political drama.
Gabby Douglas shattered a ceiling when she won an Olympic gold medal in the all-around gymnastics competition in 2012: She's the first woman of color of any nationality and the first African American gymnast in Olympic history to do it!
Nat King Cole became the first African American network television host when his show, "The Nat King Cole Show," debuted on NBC in 1956. The series ended one year later, due to a lack of sponsorship. Nat commented at the time, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."
Halle Berry won the Oscar for best actress in 2002 for her performance in "Monster's Ball" -- she's the first and, so far, only Black woman to receive the honor. "This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox," she said in her acceptance speech. "And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."
Cicely Tyson, who died at 96 in January 2021, became the first Black woman to earn an honorary Oscar when she took home the trophy at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences' Governors Awards in 2018. "I don't know that I would cherish a better gift," the legend said during her acceptance speech. "This is the culmination of all those years of haves and have not."
When Oprah Winfrey launched her production company, Harpo Studios, in 1986, she became the first Black woman (and third woman overall, after silent film star Mary Pickford and comedy legend Lucille Ball) to run her own Hollywood studio. But that's not the only way the media mogul has made history: When her eponymous television network, OWN, launched in 2011, it became the first and only network named for and inspired by a single individual. And in 2014, she became the first Black female producer to score an Academy Award nomination for best picture thanks to her work on "Selma.
Halle Berry might have been the first Black woman to win an Oscar for best actress, but she was following in the footsteps of her idol, Dorothy Dandridge. In 1954, Dorothy became the first Black woman to ever be nominated for a best actress Academy Award (for her performance in "Carmen Jones").
In 1989, Arsenio Hall became the first Black late-night TV host when his program, "The Arsenio Hall Show," premiered. The series lasted for five seasons.
Mary J. Blige made history in 2018 when she became the first person ever -- regardless of race or gender -- to earn Oscar nominations for both acting and original song during a single year. The Academy recognized the singer-actress for her performance as Florence Jackson in "Mudbound" and also for co-writing the original song "Mighty River," which she sings in the drama. (The double nominations make her the first Black woman to receive multiple Oscar nominations in the same year.)
Keke Palmer broke barriers in 2014 by becoming the first Black woman to play Cinderella on Broadway.
On July 8, 2020, The CW and Berlanti Productions announced that Javicia Leslie had been cast as the new star of TV's "Batwoman" following Ruby Rose's exit, making her the first Black actress to portray the character in a live-action television or film production. "I am extremely proud to be the first Black actress to play the iconic role of Batwoman on television, and as a bisexual woman, I am honored to join this groundbreaking show which has been such a trailblazer for the LGBTQ+ community," Javicia said in a statement.
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